Jimmy Aldaoud was deported from the U.S. in June to Iraq, a country that his family said he had never set foot in. Two months after he arrived there, his family got word that he was found dead in Baghdad.
Aldaoud was born in Greece, his sister Mary Bolis said, after his family fled Iraq. He didn't speak Arabic.
He was 41 when he died, and he arrived legally in the U.S. in May 1979 when he was a year old, his lawyer, Chris Schaedig, said. He lived near Detroit until he was put on a plane to Najaf by U.S. federal officials.
"I begged them. I said, 'Please, I've never seen that country. I've never been there.' However, they forced me," Aldaoud said in a video recorded shortly after his arrival in Iraq, which was posted on Facebook by a family friend.
Aldaoud is shown looking dejected and exhausted. He said he was trying to find food. "I've got nothing over here, as you can see," he said.
"I was sleeping in the street," he said, adding that he was kicked in the back by a man who said Aldaoud was on his property. "I'm diabetic. I take insulin shots. I've been throwing up, throwing up." Bolis also said her brother had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
"As far as I know, he did not know a soul over there," said Schaedig. Aldaoud is from the minority Chaldean Christian community, which has been severely persecuted in Iraq.
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Schaedig said he wasn't at all surprised that Aldaoud died in Iraq. "I firmly believe — from the second I took the case — that he was in mortal danger if he was deported," he said.
Bolis told NPR that she spoke to Aldaoud every day and that he recently told her that he wasn't feeling well.
"I started getting worried," she said, and begged him to go to the hospital. He eventually did and sent her a picture after he was admitted. "What I'm understanding is he got a shot and some medicine from the hospital and was released."
Early on Monday morning, she said, "we got the call that he passed away." It's not clear what his cause of death was.
"It's crazy to know that he died alone in a country he'd never been in," Bolis said.
She remembers him as a man with a huge heart. He had been homeless, she said, but even in those difficult circumstances he would call to say he wanted to take her kids to get ice cream. "Jimmy was seriously the most nicest guy," said Bolis.
And he was deeply troubled in Iraq. His sister remembers him saying, "I don't understand the language. I don't understand the money. I don't understand the street. I can't explain to you how different it is here." He wanted to be put back in jail in the U.S. instead, she said.
A friend of his who had contact with him in Baghdad told NPR he thinks Aldaoud had been planning to kill himself, though his sister said she doesn't believe he would. Naser al-Shimary said he urged his friend to stay strong.
"He told me — he's like, 'I can't stay here. I'm not going to be able to stay here.' I told him, 'Jimmy, I know what you're thinking.' I told him, 'You gotta hold on,' " said Shimary, who was also deported from the U.S. and met Aldaoud when they were both in detention there. "He's like, 'They took me away from my home, my family.' I told him, 'Jimmy, there is more to your life than that.' "
Shimary said he and Aldaoud used to play chess together in detention. Shimary, speaking by phone from the south of Iraq, said Aldaoud had been living with a friend but didn't have money for rent or food.
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"That kid didn't have to die. He didn't do nothing. Jimmy was a good man. Not like that — he didn't have to go out like that," Shimary said.
Wesam Yako, a U.S. Army veteran who was also deported, said he saw Aldaoud last week in Baghdad. "I saw him. He was sick. He was sitting at home all day for 10 days," Yako said. "He don't want to go nowhere."
"I was like, 'How you going to make a living if you're just in an apartment all day?' But I feel like he had nothing. He had no job, nothing. He didn't want to go out," said Yako, who has been in Iraq for two years because he agreed to deportation over two felonies from the early 1990s.
He said Aldaoud was put up in a refugee caravan belonging to a church at the beginning, and then his family sent him money for rent and medicine for three months.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Detroit said that Aldaoud entered the U.S. legally in 1979, "before violating the terms of his status due to several criminal convictions."
Michigan police records show that Aldaoud pleaded guilty to criminal charges at least 15 times over the course of nearly 20 years prior to his deportation. Those include assault, breaking and entering, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and home invasion.
"If you look at the list of criminal convictions, yeah — it looks pretty bad," said Schaedig. "But if you go a little bit under the surface — if there's anyone willing to do that — it was someone who just needed help and who is committing the pettiest of petty crimes." Most of the crimes could be linked to homelessness and serious mental health issues, he said.
"Several of those, larceny or robbery charges, were when he would open an unlocked car and take change out of the cup holders," he said.
There were several "crimes of violence" as well, and Schaedig noted that "every single one of those was against his father or some sort of tussle with a member of his family at the time when his mental illness was really developing." He stressed that Aldaoud was "not at all a danger to the community at large," and his relationship was fraught with his father, who eventually kicked him out of the house.
Bolis said that their father would call the police on her brother and accuse him of crimes he didn't commit. "He could not have hurt a fly," she said.
In 2017, ICE officials arrested many Iraqis in sweeps — according to Schaedig, they detained at least 114 members of the Chaldean community in metropolitan Detroit, including Aldaoud, by September of that year.
It was then that Schaedig answered a call from the American Civil Liberties Union looking for attorneys to take these cases pro bono. Over the next few months, he saw his client's mental health rapidly deteriorate.
"Jimmy's mental issues and the fact that he was detained made it harder and harder for him to deal with the process," said Schaedig. "He got out a couple times, got back in, was redetained." ICE said that he was arrested in April 2019 "for larceny from a motor vehicle."
At the final stage of the removal process, when the "strain on him was incredible," Schaedig said Aldaoud decided he didn't want to go through with his hearing.
"That's when I ceased representation of him," he said. "So from that point on, he was unrepresented. ... I have no personal knowledge of what went on after that, other than that he was eventually deported."
On June 2, he was put on a plane bound for Iraq. ICE authorities say they supplied him with a "full complement of medicine to ensure continuity of care," though they have not clarified what that means.
His sister said the family didn't know that he was being deported until after he was out of the country.
The ACLU has spoken out about his death and has warned that others may face the same fate if deported.
"We knew he would not survive if deported," Miriam Aukerman, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement. "What we don't know is how many more people ICE will send to their deaths."